Friday, December 4, 2009

Making great coffee with a French press

The best coffee should be rich and flavorful. There is nothing more disappointing than watery and worse yet cold cup of coffee. In the quest for the perfect cup, I have found the French press to be the best method for making american style coffee. A French press is also commonly referred to a coffee press or a press pot.

Over the years, I have stumbled across restaurants with rich flavorful coffee. I would ask them what brand they use and then buy it if possible. Even still the rich taste could not be replicated at home. Having failed many times trying to make great coffee, I finally discovered a way to make truly wonderful coffee so good, you will want to go home for coffee instead of ordering it out. The secrete is a combination of equipment, method, time and coffee selection.

The Equipment:

Get a burr coffee grinder

Not only does a good grinder allow you to turn a bean into a suitable size for your choice of coffee maker, it helps control the richness of your coffee and there is nothing better than coffee ground fresh just before using it. I highly recommend a burr type grinder for consistent control over the grind. The one I use is from KitchenAid which has served me well, but I am sure most any burr grinder will do.

No more drip makers
After countless purchases of both cheap and expensive drip coffee makers, they have never produced what i was looking for. The temperature is almost never right and the coffee is almost always watery. Sure, adding more coffee and adjusting the grinds can help, but mostly it just adjusts the bitterness level. One cannot buy a magical coffee maker that is just going to do it. Coffee from an inexpensive machine is as good as the coffee from a mega-expensive. It is more about the skill of the person making it than the equipment. In the case of drip makers, the technology is convenient at the cost of excellence.

Get an insulated French press
I recommend an "insulated" French press because it needs to be able to maintain the temperature over brewing time. I have wasted money on the Bodum glass presses more than once which do not maintain the temperature well at all. Any press, including Bodum, which is "insulated" will probably be just fine. The one I am extremely happy with is a stainless press from Frieling.

The Method:

(1) Preheat, Preheat, Preheat
Temperature is very important for both brewing and coffee enjoyment. Take the hottest tap water and fill the French press letting it sit while boiling water. Take and fill the coffee cups at least half way with it. I even go so far as to microwave my cups for 1 minute just before pouring the coffee in them.

(2) Boil only the water required
Boil exactly the amount of water you need. Coffee should not be left over after the first serving has finished. The French press is not for coffee storage. As a bonus this saves electricity.

(3) Grind only the coffee required
Grinding each time makes the freshest coffee. The grinds should be very course, do not use coffee ground for drip makers or espresso. In my grinder, I use setting 2 of 8. The amount of coffee required depends on the type of coffee beans, quantity of water and acquired taste. I use 3 tablespoons of beans for 12-16 ounces of water for light-medium roast and 2 tablespoons for dark roast. If the grinds are too thin, the filter screen may clog or worse yet not work at all creating a murky cup of coffee.

(4) Brew and wait
Once the water starts to boil, empty the press of the water used for preheating, fill it with the grinds, pour in the boiling water and cover, but do not push the press down. Brewing time really depends on the coffee. I never go less than 5 minutes and average around 6 minutes for 12-16 ounces of water. For weaker beans, like Kona, 8 minutes may be required. Time is extremely important, if pulled too soon, coffee will be too weak or too late will be too strong or worse yet... cold. A larger pot of water will require a longer brewing time as well. Typically, 4-5 cups pf coffee may need to brew 8-10 minutes. After, the time has elapsed, press the press down and pour into the preheated cups.

(5) Tips
  • Use a water pot that whistles when it is boiling. This will prevent burning the pot, loss of water and electricity or gas.
  • Use a timer for brewing. This frees you from watching a clock and makes a perfect cup every time.
  • Rinse the press immediately after each use. This will make it painless to clean and always ready for the next round.
  • Always preheat the cups and the press.
  • Plan on at least one less than perfect batch with every change in coffee beans, water or brewing quantity.

Other Considerations:

Buy quality beans
Great coffee starts with great beans. Going to the grocery store and picking up flavored coffee beans may result in an unsatisfying experience. Choose what you like, what smells good, and try, try, try others. It cannot be overstressed how dramatically the coffee beans differ in flavor. Currently my favorites are Larry's beans, especially the mocha and the hand picked Kona from Trader Joes although it is a bit too pricey. Guaranteed to change my choices at least 4 times a year.

Find the good "coffee" water
Water tastes different everywhere, and that can have a significant effect on the flavor of the coffee. Sometimes even bottled water can taste metallic in coffee. Don't be afraid to use the tap water as it might be the best choice.


Cleaning a press is as simple as dumping the grinds in the garden or the trash and rinsing it out with water. Every so often a good soap down will suffice. It is painless, taking only seconds to do and should be done immediately after pouring the cups of coffee as a matter of routine.

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